Who owns the Shastric authority?


Interviewed by Ravi Joshi

Best-Seller author Rajiv Malhotra, a public intellectual on civilizations, cross-cultural encounters, religion and science, has raised concerns over the bias of western scholars in their study of Indian civilization.

R Ganesh is a Bangalore-based author in Sanskrit and Kannada. He is known for extempore composition of poetry. As practitioner of the art of Avadhana he has performed avadhanas in Kannada, Sanskrit, Telugu and Prakrit. He also gives public lectures on dance (natya sastra), music, art, culture, literature, poetics.

Ganesh’s scathing attack on The Battle For Sanskrit (TBFS) and against Malhotra’s competence came as a surprise to all practitioners of dharma who expected a rally instead of a controversy in the defense of our sanskriti. This divided some of the activists and it needed to be healed.

TBFS seeks to alert traditional scholars of the analysis of Indian texts made by Sheldon Pollock, a Sanskrit professor at Columbia University who is well-known for his writings on the intellectual and literary history of India. Pollock exclaims that Sanskrit texts are socially oppressive and serve as a political weapon of the ruling elite; that the sacred aspects need to be refuted or side lined; and that Sanskrit has long been dead. They intervene in modern India with the explicitly stated purpose of removing ‘poisons’ allegedly built into the sacred texts. Incidentally Pollock was the general editor of the Clay Sanskrit Library and is now the founding editor of the newly founded Murty Classical Library of India.

This following interview with Rajiv Malhotra discusses the critique made by R Ganesh on Rajiv’s latest book The Battle for Sanskrit that deals with the scholarship of American Indologist Sheldon Pollock.

This is a long but important interview, so for ease of reading I divided the issues into thematic categories:

  1. The qualifications required to do Rajiv Malhotra’s work
  2. Issues concerning methodology and Ganesh’s overall approach
  3. Disagreements concerning the interpretation of our sanskriti
  4. Who is being logical or illogical?
  5. What should be the future course for our sanskriti?

Theme 1: The qualifications required to do Rajiv Malhotra’s work

Q: What was your first reaction to R. Ganesh’s review of your book, The Battle For Sanskrit?

I wish to thank Shri R. Ganesh for showing interest in my book by writing a lengthy critique. Any such critique has the effect to wake up traditional scholars and draw their attention to the prevailing intellectual battlefield.

However, there are many serious errors, misunderstandings and contradictions in Sri Ganesh’s article. I would like to point out a few of the statements that are irrelevant/pedantic or that misrepresent what is written in TBFS. I would also like to clarify my domains of expertise and repeat TBFSs call for traditional scholars to work in collaboration with me in ways that complement one another.

Q: Reading Ganesh’s review one could imply that he is poisoning the well by explicitly branding you incompetent. What is your response to charges that you are unqualified to do your work?

  • On what basis can he conclude that I lack first-hand experience of sanskriti? He fails to define the scope of sanskriti and then show that I am deficient in it. This would require him to do detailed pariksha of my background, my sadhana, my guru, and so forth – something he has not done. This goes to show that Ganesh has a somewhat reductionist view of what our sanskriti is, and he makes sweeping judgments of others whom he hardly knows.

He mentions, “In The Battle for Sanskrit, Rajiv Malhotra is like an enthusiastic commander of a committed army whose strengths and weaknesses he himself is sadly unable to reconcile.” The commander of an army that he refers to is like a CEO, and must be evaluated as such. He is not supposed to be like a techie or a frog-in-the-well.

This CEO type of leadership is certainly not limited to bookish knowledge of one’s own systems. It demands an extensive experience in direct close combat with the best warriors of the opposing side. Such a leader must be psychologically strong like a Kshatriya, leaving one’s comfort zone of supporters, confidently walking directly into the line of enemy fire, even when surrounded by a hundred or more heavily armed opponents.

My movement requires me to be able to identify and define the immense variety of specialized battlefields we must engage. We must know the opposing side’s history, ideology, motives, strategic plans and tactical maneuvers. We must study the strengths/weaknesses of the main opponents we face, not only as individuals but also the workings of their institutional support apparatus. Any such leader must know how opponents have infiltrated and installed their own supporters among us, including many who serve them unconsciously and even imagine they are operating with good intentions for our civilization.

For my specialized area of work, the battlefield is situated globally, the gatekeepers are mostly hostile towards us, and we have a ragtag army to start with. I am sure Ganesh will agree with the importance of intellectual combat experience in the western battlefields, just as his avadhanas provide him the field-experience in his domain of expertise. I wish Ganesh knew enough of my background in this kind of battlefield over the past quarter century, to be able to justify his sweeping dismissal of my effectiveness.

I emphasize new knowledge acquired in several ways, including the following methods:

  • Defining the “rishi-state” of higher consciousness as a method our exemplars have used to constantly refresh knowledge, and not get frozen in time;
  • Studying a vast corpus of literature by our opponents pertaining to a broad spectrum of topics in the humanities and social sciences;
  • Engaging opponents in debate as often as I can considering this is an important form of knowledge acquisition;
  • Promote and participate in the use of modern scientific empiricism to study old knowledge with open minds, in order to benefit both the science and our improved insights about the tradition; and
  • Advocate the adaptation and writing of new smritis for our times.

Ganesh’s pedantic tutorial on sanatana dharma has no relevance to Pollock’s work or my purva-paksha of Pollock.

Ironically, even though Hiriyanna is very well-known in his own right, Ganesh establishes Hiriyanna’s credentials by quoting that the Harvard professor Daniel Ingalls praised him as a “great scholar”. This inferiority complex that many Indians have compels them to cite a westerner’s pat on the back as the gold standard of legitimacy. Why should one of our great avadhana leaders need to cite Harvard’s Ingalls to prove the greatness of Hiriyanna?Furthermore, our tradition has always encouraged and even valorized innovative thinkers who seemed to lack formal training in some field, but who successfully challenged those with eminent “credentials”. His branding me right up front as unqualified is unscholarly and elitist. Ganesh says that “Malhotra’s understanding of Sanskrit and Sanskriti seems second hand since he puts a premium on form (rupa) as against content (svarupa) and uses pseudo-logic instead of non-qualified universal experiential wisdom to counter the enemies His argument about the distinction between rupa and svarupa is irrelevant. Yes, in metaphysical contexts, the aim is to transcend rupa into understanding of svarupa but that has nothing to do with the context of defending dharma socially and politically from hostile interpretations.

  • His reference to my book’s pages 44-49 shows a lack of basic understanding of my book. In those pages I do not discuss the “enemies” at all, but rather our home team’s internal shortcomings. This is a standard SWOT analysis done to assess one’s competitiveness. It is based on numerous interviews I did over the years to assess the views and preparedness of various kinds of individuals who ought to be on our home team. Ganesh seems to be unfamiliar with such techniques, and dismisses it as “an elaborate but hazy diagnosis of the problem.” Its not a good idea to pass judgment on areas one is unfamiliar with.
  • I wish to turn his argument back on him: The complaint he cites about pandits being ignorant of the latest knowledge from new sources is applicable to those traditional scholars who are not up to date in knowledge of Western Indology, which is the subject matter of our discussion.

Pollock also resorts to this kind of hubris many times. It reminds me of a corporate slogan: “If you cannot dazzle them with brilliance, then baffle them with bullshit!”

Q: What are your thoughts on Ganesh’s strengths and knowledge gaps?

Ganesh is a great scholar but I find him lacking knowledge of the specific meta-narrative in which Sheldon Pollock’s work is located. Without understanding this fully, it is useless and in fact misleading to attempt to do purva-paksha on isolated verses and statements made by Pollock. The following four-tier model explains the layers of knowledge one must bring to bear on such a purva-paksha.

  1. Wide sweeping critique of western Indology. Cover lots of old Indologists, from Christian to secular, clubbing all of them under a simplistic profile as “western”. Most postcolonial scholarship has focused on this and some of it has been pretty useful. Few traditional Indian scholars have done serious work here, and most of them regurgitate bombastic, emotional and politicized criticisms. In any case, this is not where my focus lies in TBFS. We already have lots of such material from numerous writers over many decades. But this genre of ideology is not what we encounter today, because western Indologists like Pollock have moved on and other more sophisticated theories have superseded.
  2. Present ecosystem of Western Indology and where the Pollock School fits in. This tier looks at prevailing infrastructure for knowledge production, such as: institutions, ideologies, agendas, distribution channels, etc. This research looks at not only western scholars but also their Indian collaborators and sepoys. What are their strategies at work? Who funds what? What is the purpose of all this work? To do this type of work, one must have expertise in industry analysis. I would say Breaking India is a book in this genre.
  3. Deconstruction of Pollock school’s specific lens. Here one must look at this school’s meta-theories, narratives, key vocabulary, plans. What are the implications to dharma being studied in this way? How has this knowledge spread over the past 30+ years? Who is who in their army? This requires a multi-disciplinary approach, and knowledge of heavy English, Western thought and the ability to decode multilayered (including sly/deceptive) writing style that is typical of western scholars who want to look politically correct. I request the reader to please go through my article, The Challenges of Understanding Sheldon Pollock, available at: http://swarajyamag.com/culture/rajiv-malhotra-explains-the-challenges-of-understanding-sheldon-pollock
  4. Text specific micro-analysis. This entails analysis of specific Indian texts as per Pollock school and as per our tradition. This supports our uttara-paksha. It requires serious knowledge of Sanskrit and also of texts in detail.

My interest is in tiers 2 & 3. I saw this huge gap in our home team’s work thus far. Most of them regurgitate tier 1 repeatedly. But that writing is too superficial to make any impact. It is also obsolete as even the westerners today have disowned it. Westerners have replaced this old Orientalism with their own new Orientalism.

In a nutshell, Ganesh and most Indian scholars miss tiers 2 and 3 entirely, and do not seem to realize this. Their ideas of western Indology are frozen in the old era of tier 1. They investigate specific issues (i.e. tier-4) in the context of tier-1. Because they miss the middle tiers, which is where Pollock’s original and creative theories and lenses belong, they miss out on what is special about Pollock.

Therefore, Ganesh and I are doing two different types of yajnas. They entail two distinct subject matter areas, with different kinds of opponents and issues. I am aware of my shortcomings, and explain in my book the necessity for more specialists like Ganesh to join as teams. But unfortunately, he sees his corner of the field as though it were the entire global kurukshetra. For some mysterious reason he is blind to his own limitations. Nevertheless, Ganesh and other traditional scholars need to undertake the important work based on the tier 2 and tier 3 analysis of Pollock.

Theme 2: Issues concerning methodology and Ganesh’s overall approach

Q: Ganesh dismisses your thesis of breaking India forces, calling it a “conspiracy theory”. What is your response?

Someone dismissing it as “conspiracy theory” is clearly out of touch with the real-world events that are taking place all around us. Our experts must be better informed about the world or else not opine so authoritatively. Ganesh complains that my notion of ‘western orientalists appropriating the Indian left’ sound like conspiracy theories. Had he written this before my books Breaking India and Being Different became extremely influential, that would be one thing. But in the past several years a large number of Indians in multiple disciplines have read and appreciated that thesis.

Q: Could you please explain Ganesh’s charge that your “meticulous analysis of the works of Sheldon Pollock”, is “also an indicator of Malhotra’s obsession with Western academia, to the extent that the reader gets the impression that Hinduism will not survive unless Western academia views it in a better light.”

Ganesh contradicts himself and cannot seem to make up his mind on whether such a systematic purva-paksha is a good thing or not. If he accepts Pollock’s importance and the principle of purva-paksha, then why should he find my “meticulous analysis” to be a sign of obsession? This is like someone complaining of the “obsession” of Shankara and other exemplars of purva-paksha to critique their opponents with rigor.

He also accuses me of “playing the blame game” and advocates that we must “counter Pollock with facts.” It is a ridiculous assumption/misrepresentation, given that I worked so hard to get into the “facts” of Pollock while Ganesh shows NO knowledge of Pollock apart from what he sees in TBFS.

He misrepresents me when he says that I want Western academia to view Hinduism in a better light. My fight is exactly in the opposite direction: I oppose funding western Indology chairs that hope to win over Western academia. I want Swadeshi Indology to become strong.  The Indian Grand Narrative must be home grown and only then can we export it. Others will not respect us until we respect ourselves with unity. Anyone who has read my works knows all this well.

Q: What is your response to Ganesh’s criticism that: “The first imperative step of establishing pramanas is missing in The Battle for Sanskrit.”

In the absence of common pramanas between Western Indology and our tradition, it is impossible to debate because we may be talking about rishi consciousness but Pollock being a Marxist, disregards that such a thing even exists, and he only cares about socioeconomic dimensions. TBFS is constantly showing that Pollock rejects the claims of sacredness, and hence automatically rejects Vedas and experience of higher states.

Right now, we live in a society governed by laws and processes that are not based on our pramanas. To enter the debating court, we are being required to fit within Western Universalism.

As a pragmatist I cannot limit myself to the old style of argumentation just to show off that I am knowledgeable in pramanas. Today’s research methodology must be ‘inter-disciplinary’.

Q: You mention that Ganesh is at times confused between your position and Pollock’s position that you criticize. Please give some examples.

I go through great pains to try and explain what Pollock says, and then I give my rebuttal, but Ganesh takes it as my position and starts to criticize it. For example, he says: “Why this divide between sacred and beautiful?” This divide is Pollock’s divide, not mine. Unbeknownst to Ganesh, what he says is in agreement with my views; we both oppose Pollock on the issue of sacred/beauty.

Another example is when Ganesh claims that I do not understand what shastra and kavya mean, but does not prove this allegation by citing my writings. Instead, he seems to refer to my paraphrasing of Pollock’s views; he misunderstands these as mine. Ganesh’s following statement is in alignment with what my book says:

“Any organized body of knowledge is sastra; it serves two purposes – to govern and to reveal. A system of grammar is a sastra. It tells us what is the right usage (governs) and shows us new connections (reveals). A sastra may or may not be connected to the Vedas. Any creative work that evokes rasa (art experience; aesthetic delight) is kavya.”

He also writes: “In general, yajña refers to an act of self-dedication or service above self.” But this has always been my view, and yet he claims that I do not understand yajna. Similarly, he gives well-known definitions of terms like darshana, etc. straight from elementary textbooks, without telling us why his quotes are relevant to my book.

Theme 3: Disagreements concerning the interpretation of our sanskriti

Q: He accuses you many times of not understanding the diversity of Indian traditions. Can you respond to the charges he makes?

This is one of the most glaring misrepresentations of my work. My earlier book, Being Different, which he cites, says the exact opposite: it contrasts Indian diversity with the Western focus on the normative and the Abrahamic emphasis upon “one truth”. A key highlight of Being Different is that it goes beyond the common platitudes we read about our diversity, and proposes a comprehensive theory on why there is diversity.

The contrast between what I call history-centrism and adhyatma-vidya are key building blocks I have formulated to explain not just the diversity in our traditions, but more importantly why this diversity exists. This insight as to the underlying causes of diversity in one civilization and monoculture in the other civilization is worked out in considerable detail in my work.

In my subsequent book, Indra’s Net, I develop this thesis further into what I call the open architecture of dharma systems. Not only do I explain the immense diversity, I also examine the profound underlying unity – hence there is no fear of chaos as in the case of the Abrahamic systems. There is no control-obsession in our culture in the sense that the West has. I explain why this unity-diversity is there, whereas most writers have been content merely praising it, without adequately asking what sustains it.

Given that this theory of our diversity has been one of my important areas of work, I find it disappointing that Ganesh misunderstands me. For instance, he does not understand the notion of integral unity as explained in detail in my writings.

By definition, an integral unity allows plurality within a shared architecture. Sometimes, blind orthodoxy blurs the appreciation of any novelty in articulating our heritage. One of the hallmarks of our tradition is its ability to evolve with the changing times.

Q: What do you think of Ganesh’s criticism of the categories “tradition” and “American Orientalism”?

He has not read chapter 2, one of the largest chapters in TBFS, which is devoted to explain this. I have explained that insiders/outsiders and traditionalists/Orientalists are clusters and not homogeneous categories. Pages 30-34 are entirely devoted specifically to define and nuance these terms. Pages 35-43 list nine separate ways in which the traditionalists differ from Orientalists, and give a brief overview of each difference to show its significance. I refer the reader to the tables on pages 24-25 and 76, along with the accompanying text, and invite him/her to assess whether my analysis of this matter deserves to be so flippantly dismissed. He does not understand the cluster nature of various dharma systems in their integral unity.

Q: You have made a core point in your book about Pollock’s removal of sacredness from Sanskrit texts. How does Ganesh see this?

TBFS argues against Pollock’s allegation that sacred Sanskrit texts are toxic and that they oppress Dalits and women. He espouses removing the sacredness and I oppose him vehemently on this. My concern is also that such a removal facilitates mischievous effort by the Left to accuse sacred Sanskrit texts of violating human rights. It is in this context that I state in my book that: “Traditionally, Hindus have read Sanskrit for the purpose of understanding the ideas of ultimate reality.” To me, this sentence makes perfect sense for the intended purpose and context.

However, Ganesh picks this very same sentence from my book and rejects it stating that it is immaterial if Sanskrit is used as a means to understand reality. While it is correct that learning Sanskrit is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for spiritual enlightenment on an individual basis, it is dangerous to dismiss the importance and criticality of Sanskrit to the transmission of the dharmic traditions at a societal level.  Sanskrit is the language in which the Vedas have been transmitted, and it is the language in which our mantras have been revealed; in the very sounds of the Sanskrit language lay pathways to the transcendental realms. Sanskrit mantras are important to many sacred practices, and reaching the ultimate reality does involve vyavaharika processes in certain practices. Once again, Ganesh is shadowboxing an imaginary position without understanding the context of what I am refuting in Pollock theses.

He speaks about the teachings of many poets and sages who were ‘unaware of Sanskrit?’ Of course, we all know that many poets wrote in other languages. But Sanskrit’s sacred usages do not imply that other languages are useless. When I say that an entity X has a property Y, I am not saying that other entities cannot have property Y as well.

Q: He criticizes your interpretation of mantras. Please comment.

The context in which I mention mantras in my book must be understood before one can evaluate what I say. The context is that I am refuting Pollock when he considers mantras (and other “non-secular” aspects) to be socially toxic and oppressive against Dalits and women.

Ganesh is arguing about the issue of healing in mantras, whereas my book is arguing on a different issue, namely, that mantras and other sacred elements do not cause social oppression. They produce effects. But TBFS does not go into any specific kinds of effects, and certainly makes no medical claims.

Q: Is Ganesh misinterpreting what you mean by transcendence?

Ganesh is bothered by my use of terms like “supersensory experiences,” “higher states of consciousness” and “‘rishi’ state of consciousness”. He dismisses all such statements as “arbitrary”, presumably because they do not fit the jargon he has learned. He is particularly troubled with my statement that: “The idea of selfhood that is transcending the ordinary ego is increasingly accepted in scientific inquiry.” The fact is that cognitive scientists and neuroscientists now discuss states where the subject does not experience a separated, isolated experience of self.

Rather than being inquisitive to pursue such new knowledge, Ganesh hastily tells us that this only weakens my argument since the debate is happening at the level of pratyaksa and anumana. He must appreciate that western cognitive science does not claim to have “measured” the higher states of consciousness, but claims to have discovered correlates to it that are measurable. This is a big difference to be appreciated. It is also a big breakthrough in modern science. I wish he would be more interested in reading the literature on recent studies, and join in the effort to show that the west is busy digesting our knowledge into their own paradigms.

Furthermore, Ganesh is missing a key point. It is not correct that this debate is happening at the level of pratyaksa and anumana. To concede this point would be to concede the battle to Pollock.  Pollock as a Marxist is by definition materialist and would dismiss the relevance of the levels of consciousness that deal with the para – those which can be experienced through aparoksha gyanam (direct experience) that is not reliant on sensory experience or intellect alone.  But Sanatana Dharma cannot be confined to a materialist understanding of the universe alone – therefore, any materialist interpretations like the Marxist ones and what Pollock champions inevitably distorts and warps the tradition.  To play into the lens Pollock uses would be to concede the battle before it is even fought.  Just because Pollock dismisses the higher levels of pramana we use in understanding our tradition does not mean that we should, too! The whole point of TBFS is to put forth our own interpretations of dharma to debunk his distortions.

Q: He does not like your term “beyond” to explain paramarthika. What is your response?

Again, Ganesh misinterprets my statement. He retorts that paramarthika is not just beyond but also within. He assumes that beyond means some spatially removed place out there in the sky, as in an Abrahamic notion of heaven. But I use “beyond” (which I put in quotes in my text for this nuance) as in beyond the ordinary state of consciousness, beyond what is ordinarily experienced by most of us. It is roughly equivalent to the prefix “para” (adopted from Sanskrit into English). To be clear, in the very same sentence I say that vyavaharika, by contrast, is “the ordinary reality around us.” A more technical way might be to say that “beyond” refers to what the six pramanas cannot reveal – these being Pratyaksha (Perception), Anumana (Inference), Upamana (Comparison), Arthapatti (Postulation), Anupalabdhi (Non-apprehension), and Sabda (Verbal Testimony).

Furthermore, Ganesh contradicts his own position in another part of his article when he writes “The ultimate reality is beyond form.” If his view on “beyond” above is valid, then this statement by him would also be falsified!

Ganesh is also concerned that I have not given a direct quote of Pollock rejecting the paramarthika. This shows Ganesh’s inability (or disinterest) in reading Pollock beyond surgical punch lines in isolation. If he has read Pollock’s magnum opus, “The language of gods …”, he ought to be able to track the references to it given in TBFS. He would easily discover Pollock’s reliance upon Vico throughout. TBFS mentions how Pollock translates parmarthika-sat and vyavaharika-sat to correspond to the Latin terms, verum and certum, respectively. Pollock’s arguments that follow based on this mapping lead to his sidelining of paramarthika. This level of understanding Pollock is a prerequisite before Ganesh can begin to write any non-trivial review.

Q: Ganesh says that your statement about four ‘levels’ of speech is incorrect, because according to him, there are four ‘stages’ in chronological sequence and not ‘levels’. Please respond.

This is an example of a very pedantic issue, as it would not make any difference to my thesis if I were to replace ‘levels’ with ‘stages’. The point TBFS is arguing is that Pollock is wrong in considering the oral tradition to be useless. My argument is that some of the pathways from external speech all the way to subtler forms and the ultimate para level are important, and if one has only text but no orality these would get sidelined. The real point here is that the four levels/stages are unavailable in text mode, but are available in oral practices. This point is unaffected whether these are stages or levels.

He is also wrong in his understanding of vac. For example, Sri Aurobindo discusses levels. The significance of levels is that they can exist simultaneously whereas stages are in a strict chronological order, one at a time. Advanced tantra and other yogic techniques take practitioners to higher states where they are simultaneously able to function in higher and lower levels. These are not always mutually exclusive.

Q: Are you troubled that Ganesh does not buy into your argument on the non-translatability of certain Sanskrit words?

He says: “In general, the defining feature of a technical work (pertaining to philosophy, or medicine, or science) is that it can be translated, since it has a precise language of its own (and is not bound to a particular language)” and goes on to argue that “anything that comes within universal experience can be translated.” My arguments on non-translatability have been made very extensively in Being Different, with a whole chapter devoted to this. The reader should go through that chapter and decide whether Ganesh is patently wrong in his views on whether certain Sanskrit words are non-translatable.

He then says something that is simply irrelevant to the issue at hand that in Sanskrit, the same word has different connotations in different subjects. Being Different already explains this fact with numerous examples, but this is an independent point unrelated to non-translatability.

Theme 4: Who is being logical or illogical?

Q: Ganesh questions your logical abilities and calls it “pseudo-logic”. You have pointed out illogical statements made by him. Please explain.

Ganesh is making some illogical statements!. I offer a few examples.

  1. In some instances, he adopts my position and yet says I am wrong. For instance, he quotes me: “Dhyana (meditation) is available without the need for analysis since it is entirely experiential. (p. 98)” Then he disagrees with this, saying: “If this is the case, how do we account for the fact that dhyana has been analyzed extensively on the basis of experience?”

My statement that dhyana does not require analysis, is not refuted by his valid statement that some people have analyzed dhyana. That they have analyzed does not mean the analysis is mandatory for attaining the experience.

  1. Ganesh’s failure to understand the context of my statement leads him to think it is incorrect. He quotes TBFS: “…Natya Shastra was a text developed to enable the theatrical performance of itihasas.” This statement is taken from the section on Integral Unity (pages 98-102) where I am arguing against Pollock’s claim to decouple paramarthika and vyavaharika. In order to refute Pollock’s claim, I cite numerous examples of their unity and one of them is that Vedas, itihasas and Natya Shastra are linked and cannot be decoupled into separate camps with mutual tension the way Pollock does.
  2. Ganesh reaches an illogical conclusion in discussing my reference to the critical edition of the Ramayana that was compiled by MS University. He misinterprets my written words (page 322) when he asserts: “Malhotra opines that it was unwise of M S University, Baroda to have compiled a critical edition of the Ramayana and preparing an English translation (p. 322).” This is not at all what I wrote and I never blamed MS University’s project either. Rather, I blamed western scholars for taking advantage of this openness, and what we can learn from this experience. What I propose is to have some controls, and not passively give away our adhikara.
  3. All I am pointing out is that just as China controls the way foreigners can access its intellectual resources, so also we could at least make some policies on when to allow Westerners unfettered access. For instance, we could consider having some scrutiny over their access and we must monitor their works to verify that they have not violated their obligations. Moreover, knowing their motive will help us do a thorough purva-paksha of their positions, and also help produce rejoinders (as uttara). This ensures a balance between freedom and control and firmly establishes the adhikara with our civilization.

As an analogy, I offer the following: The Kumbha Mela is very open (point X). But western scholars have used this openness to infiltrate it with nefarious designs that I have recently written about (point Y). Because we don’t like Y, the solution is not to stop X (i.e. we should not end our openness). One possible solution is to bring some mechanisms of monitoring, and taking corrective action when required. Simply abandoning the adhikara and letting outsiders have a free run is unwise.

  1. Another example of an illogical analysis concerns my statement about popular culture. In my discussions with Kanchi Shankaracharya, he explicitly agreed with my view written in TBFS that “Kavya is literature that can be merely entertaining, or can also be a means for experiencing transcendence.” In fact, the Shankaracharya emphasized numerous times that we must develop a strategy to popularize our knowledge through visual entertainment such as film, TV and theater. He explained to me the importance of doing this today.

Yet, Ganesh quotes the above statement from my book, and classifies it under the heading: “Ignorance of Existing Literature and Divergent Views.” The factoid he cites has no bearing on the falsification or otherwise of my position. He uses the approach of muddying the issue by excessive citation of texts as if merely quoting proves anything by itself.

Theme 5: What should be the future course for our sanskriti?

Q: He seems to disagree with you on whether to encourage new knowledge production in Sanskrit. Can you respond?

Ganesh dismisses the idea that Sanskrit’s revival could include producing new knowledge. He cites, “Is this even practical given that scholars from many mainstream non-English languages (like Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Spanish, etc.) are finding it hard to make a name for themselves in the academic community, which is under the firm grip of English?”

He also disagrees with Chamu Krishna Shastry (quoted on page 297) that Sanskrit must once again become a language of innovation and change, absorbing new words from elsewhere, and inventing new ones internally, as and when the need arises. Ganesh retorts that “Innovation is not language-specific. Appropriating works (and words) into Sanskrit is not of practical value since the world is becoming a global village.”

I wish to point out that China and Japan are examples of government programs to produce new knowledge in their native languages. Mumbai based Shri Arnaal has developed software for machine translation of texts pertaining to specific subject matter, such that it would bring about a paradigm shift in the ability of non-English knowledge production. Machine translation is expected to usher in a new age of non-English languages becoming empowered in their own right.

Another concrete example is that Prof Bal Ram Singh (a biochemist) and Prof Girish Jha (a Sanskritist) have had productive collaborations where new scientific meanings and significance of Sanskrit terms are being discovered in sophisticated experiments in medicine. Old Sanskrit texts are the basis for their experiments today.

One can also examine how computational linguistics is thriving in the West as a field built on the study of Sanskrit grammar. It is at the cutting edge in computer science. Many persons (most notably BVK Sastry) have pointed out the loss of intellectual capital by the Indian side when this field is being de-Sanskritized by the west with the full collaboration of Indian scholars. This is what happens when we adopt the posture of not developing new knowledge on our own terms, and allow others to further enrich their intellectual platform at the cost of ours.

Finally, I want to point out that Ganesh’s position on new knowledge production in Sanskrit is aligned with what Pollock means by calling Sanskrit dead. Pollock rightfully says that a language cannot be alive by merely parroting old materials. This is precisely what happened to Greek/Latin and hence they became classical/dead languages whose only purpose is for rituals and occasional opera that very few understand and that serve for nostalgia only.

I expected Ganesh to champion Sanskrit as a living language for innovation, and not use it only for performances to entertain audiences.

Q: Explain Ganesh’s disagreement with your proposal that new smritis must be developed for today.

He attacks my suggestion that we must write new smritis and adapt old ones for this era, and that traditional scholars should play an important role in doing this. He writes:

“How is this practical? If someone were to compose a new constitution of India in Sanskrit, would s/he be taken seriously? For example, refer to the sastras and smritis composed by great scholars like Vasishta Ganapati Muni and Pullela Sriramachandrudu – what is the value given to their works by the laity and by the scholars? One can compose a smriti but what executive authority does s/he have? What are the kind of new texts can traditional scholars develop in Sanskrit? And what to make of compositions in Sanskrit hailing a tyrant like Lenin…”

We clearly disagree on how to interpret the notion of smritis for our time. And yes, the constitution does serve as a smriti whether we like it or not.

The issue of what authority such a new smriti would enjoy is a complex one. Many smritis written in the past did not necessarily become official state policy enforced on the public. They were in many cases a proposal or a particular individual’s view of society at a time and place. Some were merely descriptive (how things happen to be) and not necessarily prescriptive (how things ought to be). They were debated among experts in the marketplace of ideas. Others have the tone of formal authority.

Ganesh is blind to a very serious challenge we face: Today, the Indian Left led by Pollock’s team is in the process of developing new smritis very actively and very politically. They don’t explicitly call them smritis in order to not raise flags prematurely. But anyone who has properly read Pollock ought to know that his call to scholars to do what he terms “liberation philology” is precisely this kind of project of writing new policies for society today. There are plenty of doctrines about Dalit empowerment today that function like smritis in a pragmatic sense. Pollock’s “political philology” is the descriptive part and his “liberation philology” is the prescriptive part. The latter is what leads to calls for foreign interventions in India.

While our opponents have been busy formulating new positions, then turning these into formal policies, and finally using international agencies to make official international laws that can be imposed on India, most of our own brilliant traditional scholars seem clueless and disinterested in entering this battle of new policies. This is analogous to someone who claims to be leading an army, but who does not believe in any R&D for new weapons, even though the enemies all around have been upgrading their weapon systems. Smritis are like weapon systems in ideological warfare, and we cannot afford leaders who just don’t get this.

Q: Is Ganesh accurately representing your stance on Sanskrit as it relates to non-Indian languages?

I advocate against studying Sanskrit texts using the methods developed for the study of Greek/Latin classics, because those are dead languages and officially acknowledged as such. I cited Arabic, Mandarin and Persian as examples of old languages that are treated as living languages by their government and intellectuals. Ganesh misses my point completely. He says: “Malhotra wants Sanskrit to be bracketed with Arabic, Mandarin, and Persian instead of Greek and Latin (p. 377).” Bracketed in what sense?

He says that Sanskrit grammar has been static whereas the grammars of widely spoken languages like Arabic, Mandarin, and Persian have undergone changes over the years. This is true, but it does not impinge upon my suggestion that we should decouple from the methods of Western Indologists that are based on studying dead languages. Whether Sanskrit grammar should or should not evolve beyond Panini is an unrelated issue.

My concluding remarks

I do hope these responses by Rajiv Malhotra will reduce the tension caused by Ganesh’s rash statements, and that both sides will be able to work constructively together. Sanatana dharma needs this today. Many of us also feel that Ganesh might have been misled by some individuals with their own petty politics and agendas. However, given his stature, we hope he appreciates the big picture issues that are stake here.

About Author

Rajiv Malhotra

Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian-American researcher, writer, speaker and public intellectual on current affairs as they relate to civilizations, cross-cultural encounters, religion and science. Rajiv has conducted original research in a variety of fields and has influenced many other thinkers in India and the West. Alongside hundreds of articles and public appearances, Rajiv has authored several game changing books such as Breaking India, Being Different, Indra's Net and The Battle for Sanskrit.

1 Comment

  1. Way of the master is not to get agitated at criticism but to refute with logic and evidence in debate as shown here by Sri Rajiv, doesn’t matter how lowly the opposition arguments are and how deficient in understanding they are. This highlights an important factor, the way westernised minds of so called Indian sciences practitioners view an honest and traditional way of Purvapaksha on western understanding of Samskritha and Samskriti traditions.
    But any dialogue is better than no dialogue. Need follow up from both sides. I am really perturbed by the fact that there are hardly any scholars of Sri Rajiv’s caliber in his side except for few like Dr David Frawley.

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